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'My garden is my life': At 87, Illinois resident shows no signs of slowing down [Chicago Tribune :: BC-SRS-GARDEN-87:TB]

NORRIDGE, Ill. - Family and friends sometimes marvel at the stamina longtime Norridge resident Pasquale Cesario displays, spending long hours tending to his three large gardens that overflow with an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables.

"He does have great muscle tone for someone 87," commented his daughter, Ivana Di Piero. "He compares his muscles with my son Rocco all the time."

His family would like him to take an occasional break - maybe sit and read a book, she said, but so far her father isn't ready to heed the advice.

"Believe it my friend," he says to a visitor, sitting with his daughter and his wife, Luigina Cesario, at a table in in the couple's kitchen at their Norridge home, "my garden is my life now. It's my pleasure."

Indeed, he maintains three beautifully organized gardens in Norridge, one behind his home, and others behind his daughter's home and her friend's.

"There's basically no grass," Di Piero said. "Every inch of soil is filled with fruits or flowers or some type of vegetable."

Snatching a ripe peach from a fruit tree, he led a visitor on a tour of one of his gardens, proudly pointing out some of the crops. They include tomatoes, onions, potatoes, zucchini, many kinds of pepper, spinach, rapini, a variety of beans, lettuce, eggplant, various herbs and spices such as parsley, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary.

"He's in the garden after his morning coffee, comes in to eat lunch, and then goes back in the garden until the sun goes down," Di Piero said. "He starts his seeds in February and picks his last crop in early December. He takes care of each one of his plants as if they were human life and loves to see them grow and produce their fruit. He treats them with love."

"I truly believe the gardens is why my dad is in such great health," she said.

Both her parents are immigrants of Calabria in southern Italy, where farming is a way of life, she said. Born the same day, the same year in the same town, they have known each other for their entire life, and have now been together for 64 years, Di Piero said.

They moved to America at age 40 for better life opportunities, and found work in factories, raising a family of four.

During their time in America, "we always had a garden," said Di Piero, the youngest of four siblings. "I mean, honestly, other than meat and eggs and milk, they really don't buy much because everything produced by the garden is canned for the winter, eaten fresh in the garden."

"We never buy bread," she added. "He (her father) buys about 500 pounds of flour, which my mother goes through in a year. She makes bread; she makes homemade pasta. For the holidays, she also makes sweets - her oven is always on."

Friday was known as Pizza Day, with Luigina making up to 34 pizzas, feeding not only herself and Pasquale, but children and grandchildren.

"So we all knew to pass by Friday night and pick up a pizza," said Di Piero. Sunday was usually family day, with family members gathering after church for one of her mother's sumptuous meals.

"She said her favorite thing is when her whole family is together," Di Piero said. "She loved to make dinner for her whole family."

It doesn't stop there. In October, Pasquale turns to wine-making, producing about 130 gallons a year, which is stored in barrels in the family's basement.

In January, typically, he makes makes his own salami, getting the casings from a butcher friend in Alsip and filling them with sausage and Italian delicacies such as capocollo, soppressata and prosciutto, and then hanging them to cure. He makes about a thousand pounds of salami a year for his entire family.

Pasquale and Luigina, born on the same day, in the same year, in the same town, work as a tandem, most of the time.

"They fight a lot because he grows too much and then she has got too much work to do," Di Piero said.

But overall, the two demonstrate "what two 87-year-olds can do with their hard work and a whole lot of love," she said.

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